Christianity and Islam: Lecture III

Moral Teaching of the Bible and the Koran Contrasted.

`Allahu Akbar! Prayer is better than sleep! O Thou bountiful One, Thy mercy ceases not! My sins are great: greater is thy mercy! I extol His perfection! Allahu Akbar.' - The Muslim Call to Prayer.

W. R. W. Stephens: The apostolic mission of Muhammad having been once acknowledged, it was natural that he should undertake the regulation, not only of the creed, but also of the moral practice and ceremonial worship of his countrymen. The Koran consequently became the ethical digest, the civil code, the ceremonial hand book, as well as the theological oracle of his disciples. And it is obvious that if Muhammad's aim was to remodel the national life, the most effectual way of attaining it, his prophetic authority once established, was to frame a number of positive precepts touching every department of moral conduct.

A peculiar character is by this method quickly but forcibly stamped upon the recipients. They become `new creatures,' with new motives, and new purposes. They are capable of being conducted by their ruler to definite ends, because their movements are under control, because the people are more like a disciplined army, than are a people to whom greater freedom of thought and action is allowed.

Nothing less than the imposition of a minute code of rules for practical life could have enabled Benedict [Benedictine Monks], or Francis of Assisi [Franciscans], or Dominic [Dominicans], or Ignatius Loyola [Jesuits] to fix such a distinct and lasting character upon the great religious orders which they created.

The Code of Muhammad and the Code of Moses

It was by their subjection to a system of positive precepts, molding and regulating every department of life, that the Israelites, after their emancipation from Egypt, were trained for that peculiar position among the nations of the world which it was God's purpose to give them. Their long servitude in Egypt had crushed their spirit of independence and self-respect, had lowered their moral standard, and corrupted the pure faith of their forefathers. Nothing less than a stringent minute set of practical laws could have transformed them from a rabble of abject and superstitious slaves into a brave, God-fearing, God-loving host of free men.

Such a code was given to them in the hands of their mediator, Moses; it became to them, what the Koran has become to the Muslim, the theological, moral, ceremonial, and civil code, all in one; it taught them what to believe, how to worship, how to live.

Having been converted, under the influence of their heaven-sent law, into a valorous and puissant people, they took forcible possession of the land of Canaan ; and the promise made ages before to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was at last fulfilled.

Thus far there certainly seems some analogy between the effects of the law given to the Jews from God, as they believed, through Moses, and the effects of the law given to the Arabs from God, as they no less believed, through Muhammad. The aim of Muhammad was to revive among his countrymen the Arabs, as Moses revived among his countrymen the Jews, the pure faith of their common forefather Abraham. In this he succeeded to a very great extent.

For a confused heap of idolatrous superstitions, he substituted a pure monotheistic faith; he abolished some of the most vicious practices of his countrymen, modified others; he generally raised the moral standard, improved the social condition of the people, and introduced a sober and rational ceremonial in worship.

Finally he welded by this means a number of wild independent tribes, mere floating atoms, into a compact body politic, as well prepared and as eager to subdue the kingdoms of the world to their rule and to their faith, as ever the Israelites had been to conquer the land of Canaan.

But the danger of a precise system of positive precepts regulating in minute detail the ceremonial of worship, and the moral and social relations of life, is that it should retain too tight a grip upon men when the circumstances which justified it have changed or vanished away; that the movements as it were of full-grown men should be impeded and cramped by garments fitted only for children; or to speak more correctly, perhaps, that the moral growth of those who live under such a minute system of restraints should be stunted and retarded.

Amongst the Jews there was a provision made against this danger. It was one peculiar part of the mission of the Prophets to counteract that tendency to narrowness, formality, and hardness, which was the consequence of living under a rigid system of positive precepts They kindled the spirit of worship and of morality, as opposed to the letter; they prepared the way for the purer, loftier, more free dispensation of the Gospel.

The earlier system of exact and positive laws had been necessary, first to transform the character of the people, and then to maintain it; first to mark them off from all other nations as God's chosen, peculiar possession, and then to fence them round and preserve their creed and morals intact, and undefiled by the mass of heathenism which surrounded them. But lest they should confound virtue as identical with obedience to the outward requirements of the law, the voices of the Prophets were ever and anon lifted up to declare that a strict conformity to practical precepts, whether of conduct or ceremonial, would not extenuate, but rather increase, in the eyes of God the guilt of an unpurified heart and an unholy life.

`To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with: it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. . . . . Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.' (Isa. 1)

It would be unnecessary to multiply citations of similar passages, which are familiar to us all. They are. all anticipations of the moral teaching of Him who pronounced woe on those hypocrites that paid tithe of mint, anise, and cummin, but omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith (Matt. 23:23).

It is obvious to any reader of the Koran that it does not contain, except perhaps in a few stray passages, any teachings analogous to the moral teaching of the Hebrew Prophets which might act as a corrective to the cramping and hardening influence of its positive precepts. Nor has any school of teachers arisen in Islam who have made it their aim to accomplish this salutary object. There have been Scribes (and probably Pharisees) in abundance, but no Prophets.

In the reformation which Muhammad effected among the Arabs, by persuading them to adopt as of divine institution a set of theological doctrines and moral precepts, it has been admitted that there seems some analogy to the reformation effected among the Israelites by Moses.

The Use of Force

It has often been considered that in the propagation of the creed of Muhammad by the sword, there is a further parallel to the forcible occupation of the land of Canaan by the Jews.

There are critics who will compare the extermination or subjugation of the inhabitants of conquered territory alike by Muhammad and Joshua, and maintain that it is equally difficult to reconcile either with sound principles of morality. The supposed analogy, however, breaks down upon examination, and the case turns out to be one, not for comparison, but contrast.

In the Koran, the Muslim is absolutely and positively commanded to make war upon all those who decline to acknowledge the prophet until they submit, or, in the case of Jews and Christians, purchase exemption from conformity by the payment of tribute (9:29).

The mission of the Muslim, as declared in the Koran, is distinctly aggressive. We might say that Muhammad bequeathed to his disciples a roving commission to propagate his faith by the employment of force where persuasion failed. `O prophet, fight for the religion of God' - `Stir up the faithful to war,' such are commands which Muhammad believed to be given him by God. `Fight against them who believe not in God nor the last day,' `attack the idolatrous in all the months,' such are his own exhortations to his disciples.

We need hardly stop to point out that such a charge is diametrically opposite to the commission of Christ to His Apostles, who were commanded to preach the Gospel to every creature, but were expressly forbidden to support their preaching by carnal weapons.

It is more important to show that the Jews had no roving commission to go about the world making proselytes, and presenting the alternatives of tribute or the sword to such as would not accept their creed. They were commanded to take possession of only a narrow strip of land, promised ages before to their ancestors, to extirpate the inhabitants on account of their singular wickedness, and then to keep themselves aloof from their neighbors in order that the light of a pure monotheistic faith might be maintained burning undimmed amidst the darkness of surrounding heathenism. Again and again the people are reminded that the land is given them as a step towards the fulfillment of the promise made by God to their forefathers, that through their seed all nations of the earth should in the ages to come be blessed; again and again they are instructed that in destroying or expelling the inhabitants they were only instruments used for the removal of wickedness instead of some inanimate force, such as earthquake, or plague, or the fire which consumed Sodom and Gomorrah.

`Understand this day that the Lord thy God is He which goeth over before thee; as a consuming fire shall He destroy them, and bring them down before thy face. .... Speak not thou in thine heart after that the Lord thy God hath cast them out from before thee, saying, for my righteousness the Lord hath brought me in to possess this land. .... Not for thy righteousness or for the uprightness of thine heart dost thou go to possess their land; but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that He may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob' (Deut. 9:3-5).

The two purposes for which the Jews were permitted to take forcible possession of Canaan are here distinctly stated: the immediate purpose was the expulsion of wickedness; the ultimate far reaching purpose was, retrospectively, the fulfillment of the promise made to their forefathers; prospectively, as a part or consequence of this fulfillment, the bestowal of a blessing on all families of the earth.

Meanwhile the Jews, having been once established in their country, were to abstain from aggression upon surrounding nations, and as far as possible from intercourse with them. They were to act on the defensive, to keep themselves separate and undefiled; not to compel others to accept their faith, but to wait patiently God's own time, and God's own way of extending it.

instructions to Rulers

In the Book of Deuteronomy (17:) there are some principles laid down for regulating the character and conduct of kings who might in future be appointed. They all aim at repressing the acquisition of military power, the display of military pomp, the indulgence in luxury, and the accumulation of riches to which the Oriental despots of the world were addicted. The Jewish king was not to multiply horses to himself, or wives or silver and gold. The career of Solomon was in direct disobedience to these commands, and initiated a disastrous policy of worldly greatness and ambition in his successors, which ended in the overthrow of the Empire.

In the Koran, on the other hand, there is no such condemnation of these elements of earthly luxury and ostentation, and the later caliphs certainly indulged in them to their hearts' content.

The latitude of toleration allowed to the Jews towards nations alien in creed or birth, or both, was as great as possible compatibly with the necessity of keeping the chosen nation free from contamination; and much greater than many from a superficial view of the Jewish position are apt to imagine.

`Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite, for he is thy brother; thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian, because thou wast a stranger in his land.' (Deut. 23:7)

Edomite or Egyptian children of the third generation were to be admitted as members of the congregation (Dent. 23:7, 8). The league of peace made with the Gibeonites was to be observed forever, notwithstanding they had obtained it by a fraudulent artifice. This scrupulous adherence to a pledge once given, this `swearing to a neighbour, and disappointing him not, though it were to their own hindrance,' (Psalms 15:4) presents a striking contrast to the acts of treachery which were not only connived at by Muhammad, but in some cases expressly sanctioned.

Nothing, again, is more continually and solemnly reiterated in the pages of the Pentateuch than the duty of showing kindness to strangers. The command is always based upon a touching appeal to the recollection of their own former condition as strangers and sojourners in Egypt.

`Thou shalt not oppress a stranger, for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exod. 23:9)
`Thou shalt neither vex a stranger nor oppress him, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Exod. 22:21)

The Koran also enjoins repeatedly and in very emphatic language the duty of showing kindness to the stranger and the orphan, and of treating slaves, if converted to the faith, with the consideration and respect due to believers.

The duty even of mercy to the lower animals is not forgotten, and it is to be thankfully acknowledged that Islam as well as Buddhism shares with Christianity the honour of having given birth to Hospitals and Asylums for the insane and sick.

Slavery

But ardent admirers of Islam are so much captivated by these laudable traits that they sometimes unduly magnify them, and underrate the teachings of the Bible in reference to the same subjects. To take the case of slavery, for instance; persons filled with admiration of the humane treatment of the slave inculcated in the Koran, and as a rule practiced in Muslim countries, are apt to forget that slavery after all is distinctly recognized by the Koran as an integral part of the social system; that the Muslim slave could not look forward like the Hebrew to his release in the seventh year (Deut. 15:9); and that, while the Koran enjoins kindness in general terms, there are not such often repeated and touching warnings as we find in the Pentateuch against oppression of slaves and hired servants, not such distinct and minute provisions for their happiness and welfare.

`Thou shalt not oppress an hired servant that is poor and needy, whether he be of thy brethren or of thy strangers that are in thy land within thy gates: at his day thou shalt give him his hire, neither shall the sun go down upon it, for he is poor and setteth his heart upon it .... thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence.' (Deut. 24:14)

If a master struck a slave so as to cause the loss of an eye or a tooth, the slave was to go free for his eye's sake, or his tooth's sake; if he caused his death, the master was to be punished. When the slave was released in the seventh year, his wife and children accompanied him unless the wife had been given him by his master. In that case, and in that case only, the master could retain her (Exod. 21:1). The runaway slave was not to be restored to his master.

`Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates where it liketh him best: thou shalt not oppress him' (Deut. 23:15).

By such like enactments did the law of Moses mitigate the condition of slavery. The Gospel has done more. It did not violently interfere with any of the existing social or political institutions amongst which it arose; it accepted them, it made the best of them. It did not preach rebellion against the slave-owner, or the despot; but it was ever slowly, yet surely, sapping the despotism alike of the slave-owner and the political tyrant at its roots by proclaiming principles of justice and mercy, and infusing a spirit of brotherhood, which were inconsistent with oppression in any form.

The conduct of St. Paul towards the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon is a typical illustration of the general attitude of Christianity towards the institution of slavery as a whole. He sends back the fugitive, but requests Philemon that he may be received, not as a slave, but as a brother beloved, because like the master, he had become a Christian, was a member of the same spiritual family, an inheritor of the same Heavenly kingdom (Philem. 16).

Treatment of Enemies

To pass from the treatment of slaves to, the treatment of enemies, `Islam, tribute, or the sword,' is the well-known formula which sums up the teaching of the Koran concerning this matter.

`When ye encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads until ye have made a great slaughter among them; and bind them in bonds, and either give them a free dismission afterwards or exact a ransom until the war shall have laid down its arms.' (47:4)

This is mild compared with many other passages where the alternative of release is not suggested. The Israelites, as was observed just now, were to abstain from aggression, except upon the inhabitants of that land in which they were to act as God's instruments for the extirpation of wickedness. The capture of towns in Canaan, therefore, but in Canaan only, was to be followed by complete destruction of all that breathed therein.

If forced into war with more distant countries, when the Jewish army came before a city peace was to be proclaimed. If this was not accepted and the city was besieged and captured, the men only were to be put to the sword; the women and children were to be saved alive (Deut. 20.).

Under the Mosaic law women taken captive in war were not to be degraded to the condition of slave concubines. If a man wished to make one his wife, she had first to go through a kind of religious ceremonial of purification, and then she was allowed a month of mourning for her old home before she was married. If the husband afterwards wished to put her away, she was free to go wherever she pleased; the man was not to sell her or in any way to make merchandise of her (Deut. 21.).

These provisions for the honor of female captives form a striking contrast to the law of the Koran, which, while it endeavors to alleviate the evils of polygamy by restricting the number of a man's wives to four, places no limit whatever to the number of his concubines, and makes no provision for the mitigation of their unhappy lot.

Of course we do not forget that the regulations of the Pentateuch concerning war were frequently violated, like many other particulars of the moral law; yet the deeds of the most merciless kings of Israel and Judah will hardly offer a parallel to one act of barbarous cruelty approved, if not actually ordered, by Muhammad.

Omm Kirfa, an aged woman, chieftainess of a tribe which had molested and plundered the caravans of the faithful, having been made captive, was tied by the legs to two camels, which were then driven in opposite directions, so that her body was literally torn asunder. I am not aware that the exploits even of modern Bashi Bazouks and Circassians can rival such an `atrocity' as this, committed under the sanction of the founder of Islam.

If it be scornfully observed that things as horrible have been done by men bearing the name of Christians, and sometimes professedly in the name of Christianity, we of course admit what every Christian with shame and sorrow must confess.

Only such alleged parallels prove nothing. The `te quoque' [You too!] argument is always a poor one, and in this instance it is peculiarly unfortunate.

Wars undertaken in the name of religion by Christians are in direct disobedience both to the spirit and letter of the Gospel; whereas religious wars undertaken by Muslims are in conformity with the practice and precept of the founder of their religion.

Christianity, therefore, cannot be made in any way chargeable with cruelties committed in wars which are themselves in contravention of the command of Christ. That men have (sometimes with a sincere zeal for God, only not according to knowledge, Rom. 10:2) attempted to propagate the Christian faith by war with its concomitant horrors, in direct disobedience to the command of Christ, does not improve the position of the Muslim when he propagates his creed by war in direct obedience to the command of Muhammad.

Destruction of Trees

One more illustration may suffice to close the contrast between the Pentateuch and the Koran respecting the conduct of war. In the book of Deuteronomy the destruction of such trees in an enemy's country as bore edible fruit is expressly forbidden: `Thou shalt not cut them down to employ them in the siege, for the tree of the field is man's life' (Deut. 20:19).

On one occasion when some palm trees (one of the principal sources of food to the Arab) were an impediment to some military operation of the prophet, he produced a special revelation authorizing their removal.

`What palm trees ye cut down or left standing were so cut down or left standing by the will of God, that He might disgrace the evil doers.' ()

The vices most prevalent in Arabia in the time of Muhammad which are most sternly denounced and absolutely forbidden in the Koran were drunkenness, unlimited concubinage and polygamy, the destruction of female infants, reckless gambling, extortionate usury, superstitious arts of divination and magic. The abolition of some of these evil customs, and the mitigation of others, was a great advance in the morality of the Arabs, and is a wonderful and honorable testimony to the zeal and influence of the reformer.

The total suppression of female infanticide and of drunkenness is the most signal triumph of his work; yet it may be observed that the excesses of cruelty and licentiousness of which Muslims can be guilty, notwithstanding abstinence from wine, proves that total abstinence from one evil thing is not in itself so good a security for virtue as the Christian principle of soberness and temperance in all things.

Women

The condition of women in Arabia seems to have been improved in three ways by the provisions of the Koran.

The transmission of a man's wives to his heir as part of his property, like his furniture or any other household chattel, was forbidden. The right of a woman to a share in her father's or husband's property was declared, and, as already stated, the legal number of wives for any one man was limited to four. Muhammad himself was exempted from this restriction by a special revelation in his favor (33:50) [He was monogamous from age 25 to 50. Later he had 9 wives simultaneously, now rationalized as "taking pity on widows".]

Under the Jewish law, polygamy was tolerated; but it was not distinctly sanctioned, as it is in the Koran, by the definition of a fixed allowable number of wives, and therefore no impediment was placed in the way of the ultimate removal of the system by the gradual growth of purer and truer views respecting the married state and the position of women in society.

The laws respecting divorce in the Koran are vile, and reveal the condition of the wife as suffering under the extreme degradation and servitude common in all Oriental countries. The husband might put away his wife and take her back again at pleasure; but if divorce had been thrice repeated she could not return to her husband except on one revolting condition, that she should first be married to another man and live with him for one whole day and night (2:230).

We read of one follower of the prophet who had offspring by sixteen wives. As he could not have possessed more than four at any one time, his case is a remarkable illustration of the facility of divorce.

With these abominable customs contrast the command in Deuteronomy (24:4), which expressly forbids a man to take back a wife who has been once divorced and married to another. In Deuteronomy, again (21:), we find a law directed against the effects of that favoritism and jealousy which are among the many banes and curses of polygamy.

`If a man have two wives, one beloved and the other hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and hated, and if the first born son be hers that was hated; then it shall be when he maketh his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved first born before the son of the hated, but he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the first born by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: the right of the first born is his.' (Deut 21:15-7)

Almsgiving

The exhortations to almsgiving as a solemn duty commanded by God and owed to man are, as is well known, very numerous in the Koran. It is perhaps the point on which the teaching of the Koran may most fairly be compared with the teaching of the Pentateuch, yet there are not such careful and particular instructions in the Koran as in the Pentateuch for ministering to the necessities: of the `stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.'

The certainty of a rich reward in the life to come to those who bestow alms is promised in the Koran in terms which sound rather like a bribe to benevolence, and which might not improbably foster pride in the almsgiver. Future punishment is predicted with equal positiveness on those who should neglect the duty. `Unto such as believe and bestow alms shall be given a great reward,' but he who did not pay his legal contribution of alms would have a serpent twisted about his neck on the day of resurrection.

Prayer and Fasting

The duties of prayer and fasting are inculcated in the Koran as co-ordinate with the duty of almsgiving; and the punctual and scrupulous observance by the Muslim of the appointed hours of prayer, and the appointed season of fasting, is notorious and edifying.

According to the traditional account of Muhammad's nocturnal journey to the seventh Heaven, he was commanded by the Almighty to impose on his disciples the obligation of saying prayers fifty times a day. By the advice of Moses, he supplicated and obtained a mitigation of this intolerable burden, and the number was gradually reduced to five. The observance of these hours was indispensable. The prayers might be shortened on the march or in the camp, when some emergency demanded action without delay; but the omissions were to be made up afterwards when the pressure of danger or haste was at an end.

Cleanliness was designated by Muhammad as the key of prayer, even as prayer was the gate of Paradise; and accordingly his disciples were forbidden to enter on their devotions without having washed the face, hands, and feet. In the absence or scarcity of water, the believer is by a special permission in the Koran to use sand as a substitute.

In the beginning of his career, when he was cultivating friendly relations with the Jews, Muhammad instructed his disciples to turn their faces, when they prayed, towards Jerusalem; but after all hopes of conciliating the Jews were at an end, Mecca was established as the Holy City, the center of attraction to which the eyes and thoughts of the faithful worshipper were to be directed.

The temple indeed at Mecca, the Kaaba, was considered by Muhammad, in common with the rest of his countrymen, as far exceeding Jerusalem in antiquity and sanctity as a spot consecrated to pure worship. It was supposed to be almost coeval with the world. The original [temple] having been destroyed by the deluge, the temple was rebuilt, according to Arabian tradition, by Abraham and Ishmael; but the black stone [in the Kaaba] was venerated as a genuine relic of the primeval building, having been let down, it was said, by God to earth at the request of Adam, after his expulsion from Paradise.

The duty of visiting this holy place is urged in the Koran with no less frequency and solemnity than the duties of almsgiving and prayer. Every Muslim, as he values the prospect of happiness in the life to come, is bound to make the pilgrimage once, at least, in his lifetime, and those who are able should make it every year in the appointed month.

If prevented by sickness or any other pressing necessity, the omission was suffered to be redeemed by offerings and a ten days' fast.

The Koran prescribes that one month in the year, the month Ramadan, should be observed as a very strict fast. From sunrise to sunset, neither food nor drink must pass the lips, but after sunset the natural appetites may be moderately gratified. As the Arabian year is lunar, each month in the course of thirty-three years runs through all the different seasons. Consequently when the month Ramadan falls in the middle of the summer, the length of the days and the severity of the heat cause such vigorous abstinence from sunrise to sunset to be extremely mortifying.

Summary of Moral Teaching

We have now touched upon the main precepts, ethical and ceremonial, contained in the Koran. The following passage is perhaps the best summary of the moral teaching which could be picked out of the whole book, especially showing that Muhammad himself did not value ceremonial unless it was attended by that real devotion on the part of the worshipper which all ceremonial is intended to express:

`There is no piety in turning your faces towards the east or the west; but he is pious who believeth in God, and the Last Day, and the Angels and the Scriptures and the Prophets, who for the love of God dispenses his wealth to his kinsfolk, to the orphans, and to the needy, and the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and for ransoming, who observeth prayer, and payeth the legal alms, and who belongs to them that are faithful to their engagements, when they have engaged in them, and are patient under ills and hardships and in time of trouble; these are they who are just and those who fear the Lord.'()

We get here a taste, a gleam, of that higher and more spiritual moral teaching which, as was pointed out at the beginning of this lecture, is the most salutary counterpoise to the stiffness and hardness of bare ethical precepts and ceremonial regulations, and to their tendency to contract men's notions of morality. Yet if all the sublime teaching of the Hebrew Prophets did not suffice to rescue the Jews from formalism, if our Lord had to denounce pretentious prayer-making, ostentatious almsgiving, superstitious ablutions, an inordinate veneration of Jerusalem and the Temple as the only spots where prayer would be acceptable, it is impossible to forbear thinking that the minute directions of the Koran concerning the times and places of prayers, and fasting, and pilgrimage, concerning the amount of almsgiving, and its consequent reward, must be perilous to the preservation of a large-minded, large-hearted piety.

The tendency of the human heart to self-deceit and formalism is so strong that when men are tied down to the performance of certain religious functions, minutely and precisely fixed in respect to time and manner, so that neither less nor more is required of them, they will very commonly (though perhaps often unconsciously to themselves) fall into the error of imagining that there is a peculiar intrinsic merit and virtue in the mere discharge of those duties. Morality is viewed not in the abstract, but in the concrete, as consisting in a bundle of religious observances rather than in a certain disposition of the heart towards God and man.

Thus, in contrasting the moral teaching of the Koran with the moral teaching of the Old Testament, and still more of the New Testament, the point which cannot fail to strike the careful student is this, that it deals much more with sin and virtue in fragmentary detail than as wholes. It deals with acts more than principles, with outward practice more than inward motives, with precept and command more than exhortation.

For instance, there are commands to give full measure, to weigh with a just balance, to abstain from wine and gambling, to treat certain persons with kindness; but on the graces of truth and honesty, of temperance and mercy, as principles of wide application, the Koran does not dwell.

I have failed to discover a single passage which touches on the virtue of meekness properly so called. Patience is inculcated, but chiefly as a condition of success in propagating the faith of Islam; for unless the believer was patient under insult and adversity, the cause of his religion might be injured by the provocation of an attack.

It is, however, only fair to give a specimen, which may be a sample of many more like it, of the check which reverence for the precepts of the Koran could place upon angry passions. As one of the sons of Ali, Muhammad's nephew, was dining, a slave dropped by accident a dish of scalding broth upon him. The poor creature fell prostrate before his master, and, to deprecate his rage, repeated a verse from the Koran `Paradise is for those who command their anger;' `I am not angry,' was the reply. `And for those who pardon offenses;' `I pardon your offence.' 'And for those who return good for evil;' `I give you your liberty and four hundred pieces of silver.'

Sin

Nowhere in the Koran, as in the Bible, is sin set forth as the subtle leaven, the moral disease, pervading and corrupting human nature, as the evil principle of which all particular forms of wickedness are the outcome. The Koran prescribes the practice of certain virtues, and condemns the practice of certain vices; it encourages by promising rewards, it deters by threatening punishment; but it does not hold up before man the hatefulness and ugliness of all sin as a whole. It does not depict vividly and forcibly the sinfulness of his fallen nature and of the impossibility of his really cleansing himself in the sight of God. Of the need of propitiation for daily and inevitable transgressions, there is not a word.

This places at once a vast interval between the standpoint of the Muslim and the Jewish religions. The essence of the Biblical ethics is the insufficiency of man to fulfil the divine law of righteousness, the hopelessness of his obtaining the favor of God, or opening the gates of Heaven by the strength of his own merits.

The necessity, therefore, of propitiation and atonement runs through the teaching of the Bible from beginning to end. Every offering under the Jewish Law was an acknowledgment of the offerer's inability to meet God's demands; it was a cry for mercy [or an expression of thankfulness and devotion]. All the offerings were summed up and completely discharged for man [in some respects, but not others, for Christians are to be "living sacrifices"] in the Life crowned by the Death of Jesus Christ; and the attitude of the Christian towards God is that of humility and hope, his moral motive is gratitude and love.

The moral motive of Islam is a solemn sense of the duty of obedience and submission to an Almighty Ruler; whereas the moral motive of Christianity is love to an Almighty Father, an all-sympathizing Redeemer, Brother, and Friend.

The moral teaching of the Koran, put into a few words, seems to amount to this:

Obey these rules for moral conduct, and conform to this prescribed ceremonial in worship, because they are commanded by God and His prophet, and. you will be rewarded with everlasting bliss in the life to come: (not, indeed, because you deserve it. Muhammad is careful to say that future bliss is the gift of God's mercy; but yet it is as confidently asserted that this gift will follow the discharge of certain prescribed duties, as if it were the price paid for them;) disobey them, and you will be rewarded with everlasting torment.'

Such a system is not calculated to inspire hope in the sinner, or to foster humility in the righteous, and is, to say the least, not unlikely to gender the delusion that the whole of practical morality and piety is enclosed within the narrow compass of a fixed number of precepts. There is no foundation laid in the Koran for that far-reaching charity which, under the Gospel regards all men as equal in the sight of God, and recognizes no distinctions into races and classes; there is no foundation for that keen sense of sinfulness, unworthiness, insufficiency, for that distrust of self, and that reliance on one higher and mightier than ourselves, which has enabled all God's saints to do and to suffer things beyond their natural power, making good the saying of St. Paul, `When I am weak, then am I strong.' (2 Cor. 12:10)

From "Christianity and Islam" by W. R. W. Stephens, Chichester, England. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co. 1877

  1. Preface: Summary and sources.
  2. Lecture 1: The The Life of Muhammad.
  3. Lecture 2: The Bible and the Qur'an.
  4. Lecture 3: Moral Values of the Bible and the Qur'an.
  5. Lecture 4: Practical Effects of the Qur'an.


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